Monday, May 21, 2012

Thoughts On Emotion: Shame, Freedom and Dancing Bears

"Omigod! I just took the best picnic video ever!"

It's Saturday afternoon around 5pm and my dance partner Jaklina and I are cooling our heels with some of her friends in Central Park's Sheep Meadow. Knowing that we are bellydancers one of the hosts gave us coined hipscarves while we shook our hips to the music coming out of the boombox.

And even though we were pretty exhausted from the Dance Parade earlier that day, still in full makeup and lugging our heavy costumes around -- hers in wheeled luggage and mine in an enormous backpack -- our dancer's bodies could not resist the lure of a pulsing beat. I placed a beer bottle on my head and drew some "oohhhss" with a choo-choo shimmy-layered figure eight, and a quick knee-drop and undulating rise (i.e. drop to a more-or-less graceful squat quickly so it looks like the object will fly off your head, then start undulating and pull up like a snake).

As I did this, I noticed a girl in a black dress, dark hair and sort-of-Goth makeup videoing me. She cooed and asked if I was a dancer. I said I was and that we had just returned from the parade. She asked if she could video us again. I called Jackie over and we did a short synchronized routine for her. She thanked us and walked away.

We went to talk to one of the hosts. Several minutes later, half-Goth Girl slithers up behind him, wrapping her hand around his waist but doesn't join in the conversation. When he steps away, she says to me, "You know, your backpack is SO AWESOME! Could I video you dancing with it on?"

My skin crawled.

"Um... no, sorry. It's really heavy and I'd rather just let it be." I turned away quickly to talk to someone else and hGG disappeared.

When she left I turned to Jackie.

"Do you know what the deal with her is?"

"No... I've never met her. I don't even know who she is friends with here."

"OK. Because she just really creeped me out."

"Yeah, I know... that thing with the backpack was really weird...."

What on earth had she really wanted? What had all that videoing been about in the first place? And the gushing praise....

It put me in mind of an episode from The Sopranos -- Season 1, Episode 10, "A Hit is a Hit" -- where in therapy Tony recounts a golf outing with his doctor neighbor and his top-flight pals. He describes his youthful mockery of Jimmy Smash, a friend with a cleft palate:

Every time he'd open his mouth, we'd piss ourselves laughing. But Jimmy didn't mind because he got to hang out with us, you know, popular crew. Although we only called him when we were bored. ..We'd say, 'Hey Jimmy, sing "Mack the Knife."' And because he wanted to hang out with us, he'd belt it right out. .. And when the laughs got old, we stopped calling him. It wasn't until years later I found out that the poor prick was going home every night and crying himself to sleep. ...  
When I found out... I felt bad. But I never really understood what he felt ... to be used, you know, for somebody else's amusement, like a fucking dancing bear, till I played golf with those guys.

So I was half-Goth Girl's dancing bear, it seems.

Perhaps she is the sort who trolls social situations, luring people into doing embarrassing or compromising acts which she can capture on video and do God-knows-what with. And she is hardly alone. One need only watch Tosh.O for ten seconds (or its sad precursor America's Funniest Home Videos) for confirmation that this is our culture's norm:  We use each other for sport -- and all too often offer ourselves up for use. But why?

Attention is part of it, because attention looks and can feel an awful lot like love, even when its source is the exact opposite.

When we love a thing, we give it our full attention, we are pulled into it -- sometimes in spite of ourselves -- and can't help but want to know it, to be with it, to have it as part of our lives. This feeling of loving attention is a vital nourishment to a growing psyche; in it, we see ourselves reflected back and begin to develop a feeling of being worthy and wanted merely for being ourselves.

But if the attention is narcissistic (i.e. where the person giving the attention merely sees a part of him/herself in the other, and therefore does not really see the other person at all -- in other words, the exact opposite of love), and is doled out by inept, shallow or emotionally unavailable adults -- then desperate confusion can occur.

Not long ago, a frustrated new-parent friend commented that things were "much better now that the baby is finally old enough to start doing things that are genuinely cute, so it is much less about just caring for his needs."

I was aghast.

This is not to say parents should find every burp their little ones exude to be heartbreakingly adorable. Parenting is yucky and difficult (and although I am not one, I have the testimony of many parents that this is true) and it is hard to fault parents for craving some reward in the form of cuteness.

But I can't help but worry that, even as much as my friends love their kid, they -- like all of us -- have been reared in a culture where we are given unreasonable expectations of what it is to be a parent. And part of this expectation involves wanting entertainment value from children, which can't help but confuse a kid's perception of being loved and valued.

Can we really be surprised that we have become a reality-TV-besotted society of dancing bears and their predatory spectators.

Knowing too well my own bearish needs for attention, I tend to be hyper-vigilant for predators; but I also try to be aware of whether I am seeking attention or just having fun and expressing myself, and not to let myself be shamed out of the latter.

When a child's craving for attention is shamed enough, he or she learns to repress it. But like any repressed need or emotion, the psyche will still require an experience of attention. And so the predatory urge begins... As a child, I noticed several peers who did this -- my own sister chief among them -- who would sense in another any "childish" need for attention, then dole a mockery of "attention" to their victim.

If the victim was especially lonely or had low self-esteem (a la Jimmy Smash), he/she would lavish in the praise, only to be led down a demeaning path and dropped precipitously by his/her "admirers."

A devastating experience.

And in this way even I began to suppress myself and was even tempted to follow the predatory impulse. But I've never enjoyed the humiliation of another; it has never given me the sense of power and superiority that it seems to give others. I've found I would much rather express myself as I am and deal with the occasional raised eyebrow -- childish though I may be at times -- than to turn on the part of myself that likes to get down and boogie at a picnic.

And it seemed on Saturday that I was in the majority as others started dancing too.

Half-Goth-Girl slunk her way to a picnic blanket far from the boom box and did not emerge again.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thoughts on Emotion: Doing the Passive-Aggressive Tango

"Why you gotta get so emotional??"

It's the mid-90s and my then-manager has hauled me into Human Resources with a fabricated list of infractions.

"What?!" I spluttered, "None of that is true!" He smugly eyed the HR manager as if to say, "See what I mean?"

In his Company of Men world of unfettered machismo, any display of emotion showed weakness, inconstancy, immaturity -- a shameful array of qualities which, it seemed, he had hoped to parlay into an image of my guilt, or at the very least unsuitability for the job.

"I'm getting emotional because I care!" I shot back, "Because I am being maligned!"

Years later, I thought of this episode when our ultra-cool president became criticized for being "too cool" -- that his lack of emotional display showed indifference, and again when a former colleague broke partnership with me, claiming my "unstable emotions and strong personality [were] a huge challenge" for her to manage.

When pressed about what was meant by "unstable," she was never able to offer a satisfactory example other than, "You got upset when such-and-such happened." When I'd counter, "But such-and-such was upsetting. If you step on my foot, should I not say 'ouch'? Isn't it better to get upset in the moment, deal with it, and let it go?"

No answer.

But therein lay a fundamental difference between the way I view and handle emotion, and the way she -- and alas so many others in our culture -- do (or don't).

"Emotions make life so much richer!" a new-agey friend of mine is fond of proclaiming, as though a Vulcan-like life without emotion were even possible.

"I'm like a Vulcan -- I don't get angry," my former roommate liked to declare. And indeed, he did not express anger; but his passive-aggressive behavior often made me furious -- and confused and ashamed for getting angry -- as I, too, have succumbed to our culture's dim view of emotion.

One evening, he admitted that he'd had a raging temper as a child, but when he saw how much his fury upset his mother, he decided he "wasn't doing that again!" This happened at age four.

So, he had learned to "control" his temper; yet frequently bragged about "psychologically torturing" his sister. He would, for example, smile during a serious family moment in a way that only she could see. This would infuriate her, but when she complained to the parents, he would simply shrug and say he didn't know what she was talking about.

He did not recognize that his glee betrayed not a lack of emotion, but his very emotional -- and irrational -- need to control emotions. (And the fictional Vulcans, by the way, do not lack emotion; rather they exert tremendous control over them, fearing their warlike tendencies -- as though the fear that drives the need to suppress emotion weren't itself an emotion.)

It took nearly two years for me to figure out that his very subtle behaviors, were calculated (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not) to make me angry, so that he could experience anger vicariously without the compromising shame of losing control -- which in his world, like my former manager -- was not acceptable.

So he got a double-boon: anger gets expressed for him, and he gets to feel superior to the person expressing it: Me.

And his behavior was not overtly outrageous ... it was just out-of-sych enough to get my attention (as with his sister) and make me question myself. Wash, rinse, repeat enough times, it indeed became enough to drive me batty.

For example, he'd shuffle around loudly outside the bathroom door after I was done bathing; he wouldn't knock to actually declare he needed the toilet (that would leave him vulnerable to my refusal, and he couldn't have that), he would just make his presence known. Me, being a sympathetic, conscientious sort would finally open the door and say, "Do you need to get in here?" To which he'd reply, "Only if you're done." Regardless of my state, I would always turn the bathroom over to him. But after a while, I finally learned to shut the door in his face, or just not open it -- his kidneys be damned -- but even that was emotionally distressing for me and left me feeling nauseous and hurting. I am not good at being cold.

Other weird things: I'd come home to find him watching TV in the dark and, asking why, would be told, "Well, it's your lamp" sending me through a flutter of emotions from surprise to frustration to incomprehension and end up feeling insulted -- like, "Is something wrong with my lamp that makes you not want to use it?"

I mean... if someone puts a lamp in a living room, it means it's supposed to be used, right?

That is the assumption I made, and which I suppose many in my shoes would make; and it is these sorts of assumptions that the skilled passive-aggressive routinely violates, leaving the violated person stunned (and not even sure why he/she is feeling stunned), upset and even angry. Then the PA goes, "What's the matter with you? Are you crazy or something?"

I would find myself eagerly urging him to accept even the smallest tokens of social interaction. It was like... imagine inviting a friend to dinner, but the friend keeps refusing to eat until finally you find yourself begging him to eat, so then he can act like he is doing you a favor by eating your food!! And in the meantime, you have gotten too upset to enjoy your own meal. And he says, "What's the matter? Why aren't you eating??"

Now, sometimes these misbegotten interactions are nothing more than miscommunication, a misreading of the other's social expectations. 

Like: you extend your hand, but the other does not; you smile, but the other does not; you sit down, the other remains standing. And when such interactions (or failures to interact) are innocent, the offering person has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to talk down from the expectation -- like "Hm.. why didn't he shake my hand? Perhaps he doesn't shake anyone's hand. Maybe he has Asperger's and doesn't know a handshake is expected." etc., etc.  But this is exhausting -- and the skilled PA counts on this too -- because exhausting the other person is also part of controlling them.

And for the PA, it's all about control....

In a social world, reciprocation, mirroring, interaction is not only normal, it's joyful. 

Think about the way children light up when they smile and you smile back at them; or they cover their eyes, you cover your eyes, and you both laugh in delight. Children express emotion naturally and enthusiastically; if they learn, however, that such expression won't be accepted, mirrored, trusted, then they learn to control... to withhold expression and even awareness of the emotion within themselves.

But emotion, for reasons I will explore in another article, is essential to being and we do great damage to ourselves and others in our attempts to control or suppress it. 

And suppression does not only take the form of Vulcanesque impassivity; it can go the other direction entirely, where emotions are expressed, but not authentically. And this, I believe, is what drew me to the repeating drama with my roommate, and similar scenarios with people like my former colleague and manager, as well as a few boyfriends.

Similar to my roommate, in childhood I had come to feel ashamed and mistrustful of my authentic feelings, responses, emotions -- my authentic self, really. But as an "expressive type" the option of direct suppression was not available to me. So I have repeatedly been drawn to the complementary part of the dynamic, where my hypersensitivity to others' behavior (which, incidentally, is directly related to lacking a sense of "authentic self) has compelled me to overreact and emote my little head off. But they are not really "my" emotions, and so are "safe." 

But in the end, the expression ends up being unsatisfying for both... and so it repeats and repeats and repeats.

But what is to be satisfied? I will answer that later... 

Oh, by the way, I did prevail against the evil manager in the end, for whatever that is worth....

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Woman, A River and Two Rorschach Monks

There is a story about obsession that an erstwhile lover is fond of mistelling.

His version goes like this:

Two Buddhist monks are on their way to an important event. They come upon a woman standing at the bank of a river who asks if they can help her across. The first monk protests that doing this will make them late, but the second sweeps her up anyway, carries her across, and returns to the first monk. They continue on their way. After an hour or so, the first monk explodes, "Why did you help that woman!? Now we are very late and will be reprimanded!" The second monk responds, "I put her down an hour ago; why are you still carrying her?"

My friend recounts this tale nearly every time he is in mixed company, such is its import to him; but I have always found it to be somewhat lacking in meaningful wisdom.

Yes, I suppose it's a good thing to remind ourselves to do a kindness for others, even at our inconvenience; and that if we do so, we should accept the consequences of our actions, which the second monk did. But the first monk kind of had a point:  He had his own legitimate desire to get to the event on time, and he had every right to protest the actions of the second monk, compassion be damned.

So... Is the lesson that the first monk should have spoken up sooner and had it out with the second monk right after the incident occurred? And doesn't the first monk have just as legitimate a lesson to be told: Is it necessary to go fawning over every damsel in distress?  Isn't "selfishness" sometimes warranted?

After my falling out with this friend, I realized that his grasp of reality was somewhat--uh--creative, so I went searching for the real story. It goes like this:

Two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walked side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger of the two monks for help. He exclaimed, 'Don't you see that I am a monk, that I took a vow of chastity?'

'I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply to help me to cross the river,' replied the young woman with a little smile.

'I...can not...I nothing for you,' said the embarrassed young monk.

'It doesn't matter,' said the elderly monk. 'Climb on my back and we will cross together.'

Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left their side and both monks continued their route in silence. Close to the monastery, the young monk could not stand it anymore and said, 'You shouldn't have carried that person on your back. It's against our rules.'

'This young woman needed help and I put her down on the other bank. You didn't carry her at all, but she is still on your back,' replied the older monk.
As it turns out, there are many alternate versions, but most of them have these key elements in common which my friend conveniently omits:  (1) The first monk is younger, the second is older; (2) the woman is young and likely attractive; and (most importantly) (3) the first monk protests that they should not help the woman because it is against their vows of chastity to ever touch a woman. (My friend fabricated the issue of their being late; this does not exist in any version and I believe my friend invented it to more easily impose (albeit unconsciously) his own meaning on the story.)

In the real story, the youth's protracted silence makes complete sense.

I imagine his entire world being turned upside-down by the elder's actions. First he is scandalized by the latter's blithe disregard for their order's rules about touching women. Second, he is in the uncomfortable position of questioning the elder's actions. Third, he is put to wonder whether it would have been all right for him to carry the woman, and what such an action would have meant for him.

And all of these elements are perfect ingredients to any obsession, which is the human foible this parable is meant to address.

As we negotiate the urgings of our bodies, which can often contradict social dictates, we are left wrestling with the appropriateness of these urgings and (hopefully) questioning the wisdom society has handed us in telling us to deny them.

Although there are many interpretations of what this parable is trying to tell us, I read it like this:

The elder monk acted in compassion, rather than via the dictates of his religious order, which was appropriate for him. Being older, wiser and perhaps with a tamer "heyday in the blood," he was not tempted by the woman's touch. To him, she was a person in need of help, not a sexual being who would lure him from his vows.

The younger monk, perhaps having not yet internalized the wisdom of his religion, and perhaps still struggling to contain a wilder cacophony of desire within him, was only able to see the woman as a sexual object -- further evidenced by his continuous thought of her after the elder had set her down. Indeed, it probably would not have been appropriate for him to pick her up, as she might have swept him up as swiftly as the river's current.

So what is the lesson?

Know where you are in your life and act appropriately; also note where others are, and realize that what is right and appropriate for them might not be for you. And, most importantly, take note of anything that consumes your thoughts; it will surely point to some area of development that needs attention.

There are a few other nice lessons in there about compassion and following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, and maybe even a thought about seeing women as people not as sex objects -- but to me, humble self-awareness is the key.

And, sadly, this quality is what my former friend so sorely lacks.

How could he then do anything other than impose his own meaning onto this story, indeed changing the story itself to do so?  In his version, the lesson is more like:  If someone does something you don't like, let it go.

Or, more accurately, if my friend does something you don't like, well too bad -- that's your problem. You should let it go and stop bothering him about it. (Truly, any complaint about his actions is invariably met with a sanctimonious, "You gotta let that go.")

In other words, the parable was one big Rorschach test, and through it he had told me -- indeed been telling me all along -- who he really was.

There was a hint of this (or some might say a HUGE RED FLAG) when we first began our affair at a yoga retreat a few years ago. Although we had been sleeping together much of that week, at the final night's party, while he chatted with another friend who was complaining about her difficulties meeting someone she liked on -- right in front of me -- he said, "Oh yeah... it's so hard to meet people!"

"Um.." I thought, "Have we been banging boots without meeting??"

The truth is -- we had never really met. I was never a real person to him, and perhaps he was not to me, although the reality of who he was certainly pressed itself into relief that evening. When I put my disgruntlement to him, he said, "Well, we live in different cities! Of course this won't continue."

Yes. Of course.

Of course, I realized, it was all about control. He had decided what was happening with me, who I was to him, and he would pick me up and put me down as it suited him.

(And the irony this was not lost on me: How could someone so devoted to Zen-like "freedom" and "being in the moment" be such a bleeping control freak? I have wondered if his attraction to Zen was a way to deal with his controlling nature -- again, unconsciously, because he does not  see himself as controllling -- or if was just a means by which to project his control-freakiness on others, whom he frequently accused of trying to control him in a most un-Zen-like way.)

As the reality of his nature dawned on me, and also realizing that I pretty much liked him anyway as a person, we continued to be friends for the next few years -- until our falling out.

When I wrote the blog entry about that last year, I had assumed that he had pushed me away because he had begun to see someone new. But even then that didn't quite feel kosher to me. Because we had been friends with no hint of romantic connection for about two years at that point, so why should he suddenly decide to push me away so fully?

I thought about our last conversation, our brunch near where he lived.

He went on at length about how all we are is a collection of "stories," and that we can change the story as it suits us (i.e. be in complete control of our emotional state). "Like a guy cut me off on the highway, and I started to get mad," he buzzed in a near frenzy, "And I said to myself, 'I don't want to be that guy -- that guy who gets mad.' And so I decided that that was not going to be my story!" Ah yes! Problem solved. Only not really.

"Well..." I grimaced, "Um... actually, if you are cut off in traffic and you get mad... I hate to tell you ... you are that guy."

His big eyes held me steadily.

"Not that that's a bad thing..." I added, "I mean, that doesn't mean you can't change... but don't you think it's important to recognize that that's what's happening inside you, and maybe look at why rather than just trying to .. um... rewrite your experience?"

"No," he snapped, "I don't think that's necessary."

And in that moment, I believe, he turned...

In true Titanic form, the emotions I'd hit in him -- indeed a nerve that undermined essential elements of the life he had been trying to create for himself -- were so large that they were slow to turn, but turn they did.

I felt this slightly in that moment, but denied it myself. I did not want to believe that he was so incapable of his own distress, or that he could reject me so completely for pointing out an inconvenient truth.

But perhaps we cling to denial -- even its various self-helpy masks -- for reasons that are often deep beyond our fathoming.

What is most sad here, though, is that I did try to offer a compromise between his view of "changing the story" and my view of accepting the story.

Consistent with Tony Schwartz' recent HuffPo article about this, we must feel free to ask the question, and know that we are not constrained by the answer. He writes:

[I ask] myself the following question any time I feel triggered by someone or something: "What's the story I'm telling myself here and how could I tell a more hopeful and empowering story about this same set of facts?"

If we let ourselves know our triggers, our obsessions and compulsions, then we acknowledge what we wish to be, and whom we fear we might be -- and so are closer to knowing who we are. And it is only from the standpoint of knowing who we are that we can grow and perhaps change "the story" of what we might be.

But this is a complicated, humbling process which can't be accomplished with the swift finality of a delete key.